On Friday District Judge Amit P. Mehta upheld BuzzFeed’s motion to compel the U.S. government to answer questions about the infamous Christopher Steele dossier. BuzzFeed published the dossier in January 2017. At the time, it reportedly proved collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and contained allegations about a “pee-pee tape.” The dossier’s allegations were unverified and relied on political opposition research.
Aleksej Gubarev sued the Internet news outlet for defamation because the dossier included a paragraph that falsely said his company Webzilla was plotting to breach the Democratic Party’s cybersecurity. BuzzFeed is claiming “fair report privilege,” which grants protection for news outlets publishing “fair and accurate” reports on government action.
BuzzFeed originally issued seven subpoenas in June 2017, asking for testimony and documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice, and Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), as well as from former FBI director James Comey. former director of national intelligence James Clapper, and former CIA director John Brennan.
The intelligence agencies rejected all of those requests, stating that they weren’t relevant to the case, required undue burden for the government, and compromised the current investigation into Russian collusion. BuzzFeed then narrowed its subpoena drastically, asking instead for answers to three questions.
Revised Narrowed Topic No. 3: The Government need only respond to one of the following and shall specify in its affidavit whether it is answering (A) or (B):
(A) Prior to 5:20 p.m. EST on January 10, 2017, did the FBI and/or any of the other Defendant agencies possess the two-page memorandum contained within the Dossier dated December 13, 2017, i.e., Report 2016/166?
(B) Prior to 5:20 p.m. EST on January 10, 2017, did the FBI and/or any of the other Defendant agencies possess all 35 pages of the Dossier?
Revised Narrowed Topic No. 7: Did the FBI receive from Senator John McCain a copy of the first 33 pages of the Dossier (i.e., all pages other than Report 2016/166) on or about December 9, 2016?
Revised Narrowed Topic No. 8: Did Mr. Clapper, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Brennan, and/or Mr. Comey, before January 10, 2017, brief President Obama about allegations contained in the Dossier?
The U.S. government rejected these “substantially narrowed” questions again, claiming undue burden and “very real” threats to the Russia investigation. Mehta dismissed these claims on the basis that these questions are highly relevant to the case, pose little work for the government to provide, and won’t compromise privileged information. The judge was a little cheeky when referring to the undue burden argument.
What started as a demand for documents and testimony covering nine separate topics is now a request to respond by sworn affidavit to three discrete questions, which likely can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Not a heavy lift.
The court ordered that the government’s response have a protective order. Only the attorneys for BuzzFeed and Gubarev will be able to view the government’s response, and the answers will be sealed.
BuzzFeed has since published a statement regarding the ruling.
Statement from BuzzFeed on today's court ruling: pic.twitter.com/Afz62kiZmW
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) August 3, 2018
Dossier author Steele is a former British spy hired by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to gather dirt on candidate Donald Trump. The FBI offered to pay Steele for his research, but it is unclear if he actually received money. Fusion GPS was also a client of both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The dossier was the basis for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to secretly surveil Trump associate and American citizen Carter Page.
Steele recently gave his deposition for the BuzzFeed trial, and as a result, Senator Chuck Grassley requested the deposition for the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee has not received the deposition yet. Steele has refused to testify or be interviewed by the committee.